Construction underway on the Joe Louis Greenway along the Midwest Detroit neighborhood. Credit: Cybelle Codish
When Detroit broke ground this spring on the $200 million Joe Louis Greenway project, a sprawling pedestrian and bike path loop that will circle the city when it’s complete, Mayor Mike Duggan celebrated the reactivation of long-vacant land.
“We are taking 27 and a half miles of the most blighted and neglected land in the city of Detroit, and we are turning it into 27 and a half miles of beauty,” he said.
The Greenway’s Framework Plan lays out a vision to “provide connected, equitable and engaging spaces throughout Detroit and the region — where people and neighborhoods will find opportunities for empowerment, unification and healing.” With seven phases of construction, the Greenway isn’t expected to be complete until after 2026.
The planned path of the Joe Louis Greenway
The first phase will convert a part of a former railway in Midwest Detroit to a pedestrian pathway. Ultimately the project will transform 7.5 miles of the old Conrail right-of-way, west of Central Avenue, into a section of the Greenway.
Midwest residents hope the Greenway will catalyze positive changes beyond the path’s boundaries, and have seized the new attention to their neighborhood as an opportunity to make headway with the city on a litany of problems — like illegal dumping, code-violating industrial businesses, blight and disinvestment — they’ve been struggling with for years.
Ru Shann Long, who serves on the Joe Louis Greenway Advisory Council, lives a street away from where leaders gathered for photo opps as they shoveled the first dirt, on a block where she knows the stories behind each house — who grew up there, who put in a new fence, who moved away. She feels hopeful about the project as one among many efforts she and her neighbors have been pushing to preserve their neighborhood.
“The city was not interested in this part of the city. We’re not by the water — we’re not by Downtown, Corktown, Greektown, Midtown — none of that, “ Long said. “But when the Greenway came up, I figured, if they’re going to invest this kind of money in a project then maybe we can get some of the other things we’ve been asking for.”
Dealing with dumpers
Historically known as the Old Westside and bordered by Joy Road, I-96, West Warren Avenue and Livernois, Midwest Detroit is a tightly-knit neighborhood that in recent decades has experienced population decline, neglect on residential blocks and a loss of public resources and services like grocery stores and schools.
The area currently contains over 30 auto industrial businesses within a 1.1 mile radius. While some are maintained, most are unkempt. Scattered along all of the main streets within the neighborhood’s boundaries, the businesses saturate the formerly vibrant commercial corridors.
Long recalls the condition of some streets near the industrial businesses saying, “It was horrible in the beginning. They had a car crusher sitting right on the sidewalk.” Business properties are littered with junked cars, tires and abandoned boats, and semis frequently drive down her street hauling vehicles.
Long and her neighbors have tried to track and address illegal dumping and non-compliant businesses by using the Improve Detroit app and working directly with city officials, a sometimes frustrating process.
She discovered that prior to COVID-19, there were only a few inspectors in the city who were responsible for ticketing businesses for code violations. It then became apparent to her that this issue was much larger than just her neighborhood.
“This is a problem throughout the city,” she said. “These supposed used car lots and minor and major repair places are like a dumping ground.”
Duggan issued an executive order in 2019 suspending licenses to auto and salvage yard businesses which resulted in a 90-day moratorium, ending March 2020. There hasn’t been an extension on the city’s moratorium since it was introduced, but no new auto yard businesses have applied for licensing in the last two years, according to the city.
In Midwest, they’ve had recent enforcement success after District Manager Eva Torres involved law enforcement, Long said.
Long has been working persistently to improve her neighborhood since retiring in 2013, through the Civic Council of Block Clubs Association, a blight task force and the Greenway’s Advisory Council, before founding the Greenway Heritage Conservancy in 2019 along with Sheri Burton and three other residents. The Conservancy was created to inform their community about the Greenway project headed to their neighborhood and the blight the area faces, with the goal of making “sure we’re not rolled over” as development comes through, Burton said.
They’ve since held several meetings with businesses and neighborhood groups to discuss how they can better make use of their shared space. They’ve taken business owners on neighborhood tours to help them understand how their businesses’ dumping has impacted the neighborhood.
Long said that the group is planning more meetings to strategize neighborhood cleanups and hopefully reignite the Midwest Business Association, where business owners could start a mutual fund available to Midwest residents. The goal of the meetings is to show the businesses how to be “a good neighbor,” she said.
Residents have accepted that they can’t get rid of the auto-related businesses in the area, but Long questioned how well the Greenway’s vision will be carried out if non-compliant businesses are allowed to continue operating. “What would make them think there’s anything nice over here for them to go to?” she wondered about future new visitors to their stretch of the Greenway.
Midwest Detroit’s residential streets have also been a hotspot for illegal dumping, residents told Detour.
“It makes you kind of feel defeated, because we’ve planned work days where we’ve [hosted neighborhood cleanups], and the next day or a week later, there’s more dumping,” said Carolyn Pruitt, a member of the United Block Club Council who is also involved in other block clubs and organizations in the area.
Jai Singletary, who until recently served as community and policy manager for outgoing District 6 Councilmember Raquel Castañeda-López, said residents and District 6 staffers want to “find alternative ways outside of law enforcement to solve this issue.”
“However, if there are people coming into somebody’s space and someone’s neighborhood and dumping illegally, we do think that … ticketing should be enforced,” he added.
Residents bring new projects and vacant land to life
Midwest neighborhood residents have expressed interest in purchasing side lots to repurpose them with hopes of alleviating some dumping concerns. While some have had success with transforming side lots, others found that seemingly residential lots, on blocks with houses, were industrially zoned, preventing them from purchasing and repurposing vacant space in their neighborhood.
Since May 2021, Midwest Detroit residents and area block clubs have been attending hearings to voice the need for zoning changes that would allow them to purchase and repurpose side lots. At City Council’s last meeting of the year last month, the body passed an amendment to the zoning ordinance that rezones a swath of properties in the area as residential, paving the way for more residents to buy side lots.
Singletary, who also helped the neighborhood with rezoning efforts, agreed that activating vacant lots with projects like community gardens could help rid the neighborhood of illegal dumping.
One of those projects, LaNita’s Butterfly Rain Garden, is in progress near McGraw and West Grand Boulevard. Pruitt, who’s working on the garden with the organization My Community Speaks, said it will also serve as a memorial to a long-term resident who lost her battle with cancer.
“Whenever it rains, our street floods. So we’re thinking of ways in which we can counter that,” she said.
Near the southeastern border of the neighborhood, developers Carlton Ballard and Deanna Stewart are looking to revitalize a property Ballard purchased in 2013. The building sits a block away from where he spent his childhood and where he currently lives.
“I came up in an era when grocery stores were in the neighborhood. And I want to get back to that. I want to build houses on this block, and there are lots of vacant lots,” Ballard said.
They have a vision for a community space that will feature a commercial kitchen and gathering area for meetings and educational workshops, as well as a grocery store that will stock produce and essential goods for residents. Alongside the building they plan to create an open space for community gardening and outdoor events.
The neighborhood has no recreation center or grocery store nearby, and lacks other amenities.
“Our mission is to revitalize neighborhoods — through resources and workshops — things that we can bring that we know the neighborhood needs,” Ballard added. ““You have to create a hub, which this will be.”
Planning for the future of the neighborhood as the Greenway takes shape
The Greenway’s phase one construction contract for Major Cement Company was approved in August, and construction of the 1.1-mile strip between Warren and Joy is underway. Landscaping and grading has begun, and will continue through the spring depending on the weather, officials said at an update meeting last week. That first stretch could open next year. Construction between Joy and Fullerton will begin next year and last through 2023.
According to Christina Peltier, the Greenway’s project manager, preparation for construction involved layering the polluted railway with ”clean dirt,” an important measure to address environmental hazards as dirt along idle commercial railways could contain lead and other harmful contaminants.
Meanwhile, city planner Trey Scott has been touring the neighborhood and meeting with people like Ballard and Stewart to better understand the community’s needs in preparation for a neighborhood plan that will begin next year. The plan will set the tone for how other neighborhoods on the Greenway’s route should implement planning.
“[Detroit] has so much control over land. There’s a lot of potential to really use that as a tool to support residents,” Peltier said.
One of the concerns frequently raised by residents is the need for more housing. Scott suggested the publicly owned land around the Joe Louis Greenway is an opportunity to provide mixed-use housing for current residents and potential new residents. The Greenway’s framework plan identifies a housing stabilization strategy east of Conrail and enhanced commercial activities along Warren, Tireman, Joy, Grand River and Oakman as two benefits of phase one implementation.
“In many cases, when you have publicly owned land, the city can kind of dictate what’s developed there,” Scott said.
One of the questions guiding his process is, “How do you not only help the people that’s there, but bring in new people while still keeping that culture and identity in their community?”
Though city plans are underway because of the Greenway, there’s been a common theme of prioritizing the residents’ voices to help sustain a legacy neighborhood and to ensure equity. Pairing the influence of the block clubs and organizations in the area with the resources of the Joe Louis Greenway project may have been what they needed to spark momentum for revitalizing their neighborhood.
Peltier emphasized how important it was for the Greenway to center residents’ voices during phase one implementation. She mentioned the Conservancy’s “strong community organizing” as the tool that allowed them to use the Greenway project to address other residential concerns.
Residents are ensuring they’re not left out as the many block clubs and organizations in the area all work closely together.
“It’s been positive to bring all of these organizations and block clubs and groups together, because we all have the same mission. And you get more done with more people — more people, more power,” Long said.
Nina Ignaczak contributed data support. Detroit Documenters Paige Rollins and Paul Warner contributed reporting.
Reporting for this story was produced in partnership with the Detroit Equity Action Lab – Race and Justice Reporting Initiative, a program of The Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights.